Mandela’s message for Israel and Palestine

Nowhere are Mandela's lessons of the power of forgiveness and pragmatism more critical than to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nelson Mandela's coffin  370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela's coffin 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela’s death has generated a world-wide outpouring of adulation seemingly unprecedented in recent history. His story – beginning in a tiny village of mud huts; joining the anti-apartheid movement; surviving twenty seven years in prison on Robben Island with his dignity intact; negotiating with South Africa’s all-white government for the transition to full democracy; and being elected as its first black president, inviting his jail-keeper to his inauguration – is clearly the stuff of legend. Except, remarkably, it happened.
In much of the commentary about him in the past two weeks, two themes key to his success emerge prominently: his capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation, and his pragmatism in service of the goal of a democratic South Africa.
Forgiveness and pragmatism are doubtless needed to effectively address conflicts among peoples anywhere in the world. But perhaps nowhere are they more critical than to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mandela modeled these attributes, thus enabling otherwise unimaginable healing and indispensable problem-solving. The Israeli and Palestinian people – as they slip further into skepticism about the prospects for peace between them – could use a large dose of each.
To find champions of these qualities, Israelis and Palestinians need look no further than their own backyards. Take for example, the bereaved families who founded The Parents Circle - Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. They live the message that despite the heartbreaking pain caused by the “other,” responses driven by vengeance, hostility, and retribution lead to a dead end. They understand that knowledge of the other’s pain and suffering serves as a basis for real communication, and that mutual recognition of both peoples’ personal and national narratives is a needed to provide fertile ground for long-term reconciliation. As Mandela did, these families are sowing the seeds needed for a sustainable peace.
And there are few better examples of pragmatism than one celebrated and re-examined last week at a conference held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The attendees recalled that ten years ago, on December 10, 2003, a diverse collection of distinguished and determined Israelis and Palestinians jointly endorsed the Geneva Accord, a model framework they had crafted for a final status agreement between their two peoples. A blueprint for the resolution of all issues, its purpose was to demonstrate -- following a history of failure -- that a dignified, realistic and sustainable two-state solution could, in fact, be achieved.
As the many eminent signers – including leaders in government, business, security, and academia -- put it, the Accord was “proof that despite all the pain entailed in concessions, it is possible to reach a historical compromise which meets the vital national interests of each side.” The impressive 114-page Geneva Initiative document – a work of consummate pragmatism that comprehensively tackles one of the thorniest challenges of our time – represents a triumph of will and tenacity over skepticism and resignation.
At the conference, the former head of Shin Bet from 2005-2011, Yuval Diskin, gave the keynote address. Observing that “one could say that in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I have seen almost everything, and done almost everything,” Diskin suggested that he is hardly a starry-eyed peacenik. But he also hesitated not at all in declaring that, after four decades of fighting, he wants “a home that does not require the occupation of another people in order to maintain itself,” and that he’s learned that “on the other side of the conflict there are human beings who are seeking the fulfillment of their rights and their independence, that suffer daily as a result of the unsolved conflict.”
Acknowledging that he wasn’t one of the architects of the Geneva Accord, Diskin expressed his confidence that it offers “a solid foundation for the two states for two peoples option,” that the different possibilities for solving the conflict “have been 'worn thin,'” and, hence, the time for decision-making is upon us.  Believing “with all [his] heart” that the “two states for two peoples” approach “is essential for our essence, for our identity, for our soul, for our security and no less important, for our moral standing as a society,” he conveyed unmistakably his conviction that an agreement is critical now, “before we reach the ‘point of no return’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
I -- along with a diverse group of fellow Bostonians -- had the great privilege of listening to Mandela speak when he visited Boston in 1990 shortly after his release from Robben Island. Democracy hadn’t yet come to South Africa, but there was a palpable sense in the crowd that – with Mandela now free – its arrival was inevitable. His understanding of both the power of forgiveness, and the need for a principled but pragmatic approach to creating a new reality, would help midwife the birthing of today’s South Africa. In Israel/Palestine, groups like the Parents Circle - Families Forum and the Geneva Initiative appreciate and apply the wisdom of that approach. Mandela sagely told us that “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Today’s Israeli and Palestinian leaders would honor his memory –- and, more importantly, their peoples’ undeniable interests -- by recognizing and demonstrating, as courageous and forward-thinking members of their societies have, that the seemingly impossible is not so impossible after all.The author is an attorney and was president of Boston Workmen's Circle from 2007-2013.